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Rules for cohabitation

March 24, 2017


“THE car driver in front of me stopped suddenly, as did I, but the driver behind me was not able to. He hit my car pretty hard. I, as a result, bumped into the car in front of me.” This incident was narrated to me by a colleague.

“I anticipated fun and games and I was not disappointed,” he continued. “All of us got out of our cars to discuss what had happened. The car that had hit me had two young people in it. I found out later in the conversation that they were both university students. The two young men started off, as I expected, by accusing me of hitting the brakes too hard. For the next five minutes I tried to convince them that it was not my fault, and according to law and all norms I could think of, it was their fault: they were responsible for keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front of them. But they refused to acknowledge that. Instead, they started to become abusive. Although a teacher, I felt this was no time to teach and preach. I told them that since they were not even willing to acknowledge their mistake, there was no point in taking the conversation further. They left after telling me what an awful person I was and how Pakistan was where it was because of people like me.

“After they left, I apologised to the driver of the car I had bumped. He said he was just a driver and was petrified that his employer would grill him. I offered to call his employer and smooth things over and also paid him to ensure that the few scratches that his car had sustained could be repaired at no cost to him.”

Our education, irrespective of level or type, does not inculcate empathy in our young people.

The above incident is just an illustration. The larger point I want to make is about the attitudes we, in general, have internalised and are internalising. Values are one aspect of being. Everyone has certain values, codes to live by and norms/rules that they have internalised. How and when these codes are invoked and become operational is another thing. Here our attitude and way of interacting with others matters a lot. This aspect, as to when we choose to invoke the principles we want to live by, is where we have major issues. As a teacher who deals with lots of young people all the time, I feel it is this aspect that even our education is failing to address adequately.

‘Putting oneself in another person’s shoes’ is one of the pre-requisites for being able to know the situation that the other person faces, their point of view and what the world looks like from their perspective, possibly even using their principles and values. Our education, irrespective of level or type, is failing to impart this aspect of being a person who lives in the company of others.

There was a scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher asks students to stand on the desk to get a different perspective from the ‘normal’ one they have while sitting at their desks. Sometimes I feel I have to resort to something similar to make my students appreciate issues of poverty and development that different people face in Pakistan. What does the world look like from the perspective of a child who goes to a madressah as opposed to a high-fee private school? All of these children are going to be citizens of one country. If they cannot understand each other and cannot appreciate each others’ perspective, we are doomed to be the kind of country we have become and are becoming.

A parent who him/herself is barely literate and has a low income, how does he/she ensure that his/her children get a good education and a decent opportunity at getting out of poverty? Public education is almost free. But the quality of education we are giving through our public schools, by and large, is quite poor. It might not be possible for a child, even if he/she survives in our public education system to complete matriculation, to either find a decent job or to have opportunities for going to good quality higher education institutions.

Can we understand the helplessness or lack of hope a parent or a child might feel in this situation?  Here I am making the distinction between sympathy and empathy. We might feel sympathy or pity for a person and the situation they might be in, but empathy requires us to put ourselves in the place of the other person and understand their situation. The basis for good laws, rules, and norms is empathy and not sympathy.

Many systems of thought have formally or informally invoked notions of empathy to de-centre individuals and their specific concerns. Kant’s categorical imperative, Christianity’s demand to treat others in the way we ourselves want to be treated, Islam’s insistence on choosing for others what you choose for yourself, Hume’s insistence on community of humans, Adam Smith’s reliance on empathy and Rawls’ notion of the ‘veil of ignorance’ are all attempts at ensuring that humans give due importance to the idea of putting oneself in another’s shoes.

In a society that is becoming increasingly polarised, divided and unequal, children are getting more isolated from each other and especially from children from other economic and social classes, ethnicities, and religions. Schools/universities used to be ‘neutral’ spaces where children from across the spectrum could interact with each other but with access to schooling becoming dependent on the income of parents, with privatisation and liberalisation, this avenue, and other such avenues, have vanished. Reversing these trends is not going to be easy, though education will have to play a key role here, but that is a conversation for another time.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2017